Farming is a big part of the landscape and a big share of Chesapeake land conservation. This week we explore the reality or potential of regional food distribution systems for supporting farmers. (Photo: CCP)

Chesapeake conservationists spend a lot of resources focused on conserving farmland. This story continues our exploration of how farmers are faring in the pandemic and how it relates to land conservation. 

Last week’s Lightning Update set out some basics of the national food distribution system and profiled a few Chesapeake region farmers selling directly to consumers. Many have been doing well during the pandemic because of a big increase in demand for local, healthy food. 

This week we pick up the story and look for broader patterns within the region and the intersections with land conservation and public health. 

The Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association (PVGA) is a trade group of 975 members representing the commercial vegetable, potato and berry industries in Pennsylvania. The industries grow crops on 3,950 farms (50,000 acres) across the Commonwealth, with an annual production value exceeding $147 million.

William Troxell, PVGA Executive Director, confirms the pattern outlined by our farmer interviews last week. Farmers selling directly to consumers have seen strong demand and sales this spring and summer. A number of them got into online purchasing for farm pickup in a big way early in the pandemic and saw increases there too.

But PVGA farmers also sell to Pennsylvania’s 16 produce auctions, where prices have been strong, driven by the same high demand. Some auctions, like the big one in Lancaster County, move millions of dollars of produce each year, says William Troxell. The buyers are generally larger farmer’s markets, as chain stores typically source directly from large-scale farms.

All told, this is a substantial, regional market. Troxell estimates 90 percent of the vegetables, potatoes, and berries grown in Pennsylvania stay within the mid Atlantic region, as most vegetable farmers are smaller and don’t have capacity to ship very far.

Jordan Green of J&L Green Farm has 31,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel FarmBuilder where he shares advice on the business of farming. This one — “Capture Opportunity” — speaks directly to his experience in responding to the pandemic.

Last month, National Geographic published a great piece on the growing interest in strengthening the Chesapeake region’s system for distributing farm products, stimulated by the pandemic. It’s well worth a read. The story highlights the same anecdotal patterns: area farmers who are diversified and have direct outlets to consumers are doing well. 

For example, J&L Green Farm in the Shenandoah Valley produces sustainably raised beef, pork, and chicken; they lost their restaurant sales (5 percent of their business), but “direct-to-consumer sales went up by a factor of 10: ‘We’ve been able to grow the business more in three months than what we projected in five years.’” 

The National Geographic piece then turns to how this boom for farmers close to dense urban markets is stimulating regional distribution. 4P Foods (the four P’s stand for “purpose, people, planet, profit”) sources produce grown in the Washington DC “foodshed” and then distributes it to consumers at their homes and offices through shares sold on-line. From January to June, 4P subscription revenues are up 400 percent. 

The company describes its purpose as creating “a just and equitable food system in the United States. This can be done by ensuring that all people have access to farm fresh, healthy food, grown using sustainable and humane practices and that the people who produce that food are able to earn a fair and dignified living doing so.” For every ten bags of food delivered to subscribers, 4P delivers one bag to one of its partner food banks.

South Mountain Creamery in MIddletown, MD is one of 4P Foods local partner farmers. (Photo: 4P Foods) 

Soon after the pandemic lock-down began, 4P Foods founder Tom McDougall and other area food activists founded the Mid-Atlantic Food Resilience and Access Coalition (MAFRAC). In a District Fray Magazine story, McDougall asks: “Do you have food, but you need bodies to help put it into boxes and you need vehicles to get it to a place? Do you need cold storage because you got a bunch of food donated to you, but it’s going to go bad because you don’t have a refrigerator? We thought that MAFRAC could be essentially that infrastructure, that coordination backbone to help think and strategize regionally to allow partners on the ground to execute hyper-locally.” A lot of MAFRAC’s early work has been connecting farmers with a variety of organizations providing emergency food for those in need. 

Piedmont agriculture in Fauquier County, Virginia. (Photo: CBP) 

Now for the land conservation connection. “Since the day we started,” says Chris Miller, President of the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), “our big picture goal has been to conserve 50 percent of the land for a rural economy. Our working belief is that when you have less than that in working farms and forests, the support systems fall apart. Services like equipment repair go away and it’s hard to sustain the level of effort and efficiency.”

“The trouble is,” he says, “you can conserve all the land, but you also need to find the investment capital to make the regional agricultural industry successful. The Piedmont is very productive and efficient for pasturing cattle, but we need investments in the regional food chain for that comparative advantage to remain with the producers. If cattle can be distributed locally and regionally, farmers benefit. Eighty percent of area cattle are going for commodity markets, essentially for export from the region, and it’s hard to compete with more exploitative systems and subsidies in South America. Beef sold at auction at $1.00 per pound for a live animal returns dramatically less than the retail price of $5.00-12.00 per pound for local, grass-fed hamburger. Even wholesale prices for local and regional distribution can increase the value significantly, if the systems were in place.” 

Buy Fresh Buy Local Coordinator Matt Coyle drops off local milk at Fauquier Community Food Bank. (Photo: Marco Sanchez/PEC) 

During the pandemic, PEC, has raised funds for emergency actions to help with some distribution problems. A substantial portion of local dairy sales (30-40 percent) normally go to area schools. The closures were a huge hit to farmers. PEC began buying milk from local dairy farms and donating 1,500 gallons a week to food banks. They are trying to replicate this with local beef, but the processing challenges are much tougher. For now, these are just charitable pilot efforts.

Chris Miller thinks the population density of the DC metro region creates potential for an alternative marketplace and distribution system, perhaps big enough to support the 50 percent of the landscape PEC is working to conserve. 

“How you get there is complex in the details – some combination of aggregation and support for local fabrication and processing,” he says. “Unlike some portions of the Chesapeake

watershed such as central Pennsylvania where the infrastructure exists, the modern density of Northern Virginia wasn’t there in the past, so there never really was a market infrastructure. We have to create it anew now.” 

Going back to the J&L Green Farm, the National Geographic story provides a vivid closing example: “under federal law, the Greens would have to hire a USDA inspector if they processed any more chickens than the 20,000 they do currently, as well as to sell in D.C., even though it is far closer than most of the rest of Virginia.” 

The story quotes Kate Clancy, a food systems consultant and visiting scholar at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University: “‘We need policy that crosses state boundaries, and most food systems in the U.S. have not been able to go there yet.” 

But area farmers, entrepreneurs, and conservationists see the pandemic as providing an opportunity — one that could benefit local farmers, public health, and more sustainable Chesapeake landscapes. 

Jonathan L. Doherty 

Lightning Update is a regular communication of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Partnership or member organizations.
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Support for the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership is provided by:
National Park Service Chesapeake
EPA Chesapeake Bay Program
USDA Forest Service
Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources
Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Virginia Outdoors Foundation
US Fish & Wildlife Service
Chesapeake Conservancy

The Chesapeake Conservation Partnership is co-convened by: